Guest Article: “Unwritten Rules of Bicycle Commuting” by Matt FitzGerald

Matt FitzGerald:

I’ve been giving this some thought and have realized that there is an unwritten code of commuting by bicycle. No one else discusses this code and I cannot find a reason why it should remain shrouded in mystery. These aren’t rules to keep you safer or save you time, just things that make this whole bike commuting thing fun and worthwhile.

The first rule is probably the easiest. When you pass another cyclist going the opposite direction, give a quick wave or a nod of the helmet. This small act of acknowledgement helps to build community among cyclists. It is just an easy way to say “way to go, buddy” to others out on the road.

If you are passing someone going the same direction, give a short acknowledgement of their presence. Base it on how much faster you are going. If you are speeding by, a simple “howdy” is fine (after an “on your left” to let them know you are coming). If you are not blazing past them you can use “great weather for a ride” or “XX more miles to go.”

Similarly, if you are getting passed, give them a “hello” back and let them pass you. The last thing anybody wants is to fight over positioning, especially on busy or dangerous roads.

If you pull up to a stop light or sign with another cyclist, talk to them. Ask them where they are headed, what routes they like, anything. If they have a piece of gear you’ve never seen or have been meaning to try, ask them about that. Nobody likes to sit awkwardly at a light next to someone when you could easily be talking.

Don’t draft behind someone you don’t know without taking a turn at the front of the line. Nobody likes a wheel sucker.

Don’t work real hard to pass someone if they are going to have to pass you again in a block or two. Passing can be a pain and on certain busy roads is dangerous. So don’t pass unless you are traveling at a faster speed. A better option is to link up and bike pool. You can pull each other through the wind and maybe even strike up a conversation.

Always, always stop or slow down when you pass another cyclist who is having equipment troubles. Ask if they need a hand or a certain tool. You never know if they lost their tire pump or their flat repair kit is with their wife (thankfully we have put together a second kit).

And finally, the rule I have the most trouble with, take time to check stuff out. By that I mean, if you see something that would make a great photo, stop and take the photo (if you carry a camera with you). If you see something curious, want to check out a new shop that has opened on your route or just wonder where a road leads, take the time to go look. The amount of time it takes will be amply made up for the by the times you discover something wonderful.

Check out Matt’s blog at


  1. Steve Furry May 29, 2008 9:11 pm 

    Thanks Matt, being new to bike commuting, it’s nice to learn the proper etiquette and it just makes sense to enjoy the world together as a cycling community.

  2. Matt@TMW May 29, 2008 9:16 pm 

    No prob, Steve.

    I really feel that though we may not know it, the best part about riding a bike to get somewhere is that we aren’t locked up inside our steel box anymore and can easily communicate with the other humans around us.

    Build your community!

  3. Mike Myers May 30, 2008 4:18 am 

    A roadie and I cross paths at the same time on my commute. I’m usually wearing lycra(albeit Performance lycra) and on my fendered and panniered Gunnar. He’s usually wearing team kit and riding his carbon Specialized. I always give him a nod or the low wave—and he just ignores me. ARGH. We’re riding on the same road dealing with the same stuff and he won’t acknowledge me. Why? I am more likely to get a Harley rider to give me a nod than a roadie.

  4. Tom May 30, 2008 4:53 am 

    Thanks Matt. Now they no longer “unrwritten rules” .

  5. tad May 30, 2008 4:59 am 

    @ Mike Myers
    Most roadies don’t acknowledge me, either. However, most other cyclists I see are commuters, and we always wave to each other.

  6. Iron Man May 30, 2008 5:53 am 

    Roadies get a bad rap. I was outright ignored by a dude with a scruffy beard, wearing a cycling cap, sipping a latte, whilst riding a townie today. I’m pretty much ignored by almost all cyclist going the other way… maybe it’s me.

    I tossed in the “whilst” just because it classes up any cycling forum to use the British form of the word. Pretentious yes, but very Euro.

  7. cafn8 May 30, 2008 6:02 am 

    It’s not just you. On a recent morning bagel run I ran across at least half a dozen people on bikes. There were roadies on expensive road bikes, moms on hybrids, and even a couple Joe 6-packs on department store mountain bikes. I waved at every one and not one returned wave. I imagined that they were wishing that they had a window to roll up.

    What’s the protocol when meeting “wrong way” riders and being chickened out into a busy street? It’s surprising how fast they approach, with 30+ MPH closing speeds at times.

  8. Ghost Rider May 30, 2008 6:08 am 

    I get the same around here…even from folks who look just like me (regular clothes, utility bikes…not lycra-clad roadies). I still wave and smile at ’em in the hopes that I’m spreading goodwill.

    My protocol for meeting the wrong-way riders is to stay the hell out of their way and give ’em a “you’re going the wrong way” shout as we pass. I figure if they’re clueless enough already to be going the wrong way on a road, they’re probably pretty squirrelly as far as bike handling skills go, so they get a wide berth.

  9. Wayne Myer May 30, 2008 7:33 am 

    @Mike Myers, cafn8:
    It happens all over. I still wave. The really funny thing to me is that the same people who won’t acknowledge me when I ride my commuter, will wave when I am riding my Cannondale.

    But yet I wave and smile. And this morning, a guy on a time trial bike waved and smiled back. I would expect TTers of all people to be aloof; after all, they are seriously trying to shave seconds. There are all kinds riders out there and we all just need to be ourselves, providing a good example.

    Regarding the wrong-ways, I have the body mass and a bike durable enough to get into it with them. They must yield, not I. Obviously this is not an option for everyone. I will give them a polite “Wrong way,” but that often elicits some profanity. I find that the wrong way riders, at least around here, are the same people showing up in the police blotter with DUIs. A couple times, they seem to have gotten the hint and got onto the correct side of the road from then on.

  10. Pamela May 30, 2008 7:39 am 

    I don’t know if you’d call them unwritten rules… at least around where I live, and often in really busy urban zones it’s just ridiculous to try to wave at everyone.

    Me, I do my own thing. If someone waves and says hi, or starts a conversation, they’ll get a genuine hello, wave, etc. from me, but I generally keep to myself while I’m cycling. I’m fine with it, that’s just me.

  11. Marrock May 30, 2008 7:45 am 

    If the roadies fail to acknowledge me I usually yell out that they have they’re shorts on inside out and then watch them roll into the bushes while trying to check.

  12. Tone May 30, 2008 8:11 am 

    Maybe I’m just antisocial, but the last thing I want to do is chat with everybody who happens to be riding a bicycle on my way to work.

    My ride is a nice, quiet time. Focusing on traffic, on the rythmn of my cadence, of the wind rushing past is almost mediative.

    I like my privacy. I don’t really want to chat at lights.

    Maybe that seems rude to the extroverted … so be it. But, I’m not trying to be rude. I’m just not looking to engage while riding.

  13. Gene May 30, 2008 8:21 am 

    Why do we all need to talk to each other?
    That is fine if that is what you like, not everyone is gregarious.
    I am an introverted, but friendly, rider. I am not good at small talk and don’t care for it. I give a friendly nod and that is it. I have no problem with other riders ignoring me.
    Not everyone has the same social preferences so I do not think there needs to be a code.
    I say let the withdrawn riders be withdrawn.
    No hard feelings.

  14. Jeff May 30, 2008 8:49 am 

    Hi. Please join the Bicycle to Work! LinkedIn networking group. Members pledge that they will try to ride their bicycle to work or on an errand at least once a week. Although the benefits should be obvious, let me outline them here.

    Right now people in the industrialized world are facing two very grave problems: obesity and a growing scarcity of oil. Compounding this problem is the new food shortage brought about, in part, by the conversion of food cropland to bio-fuel crop production. Most people feel powerless to help, but there is one thing that we can do. Ride our bicycles to work.

    If everyone would agree to ride their bikes to work one day per week we could cut oil consumption by as much as 10-15%. No one would argue that riding a bike burns more calories than driving the car. Although popular politically right now, most bio-fuels consume more energy than they produce. We would be much better to eat those bio-crops then use our own energy to transport us around.

    So spread the word. Make it a movement! Bicycle to work one day a week and do your part to cut back obesity and the overuse of oil and precious cropland.

    Just go to my profile at and you can click on the group to be included. While you are there, don’t forget to ask to link to my network of more than 9,000,000 like-minded professionals. I accept all invitations and look forward to meeting you.


  15. Iron Man May 30, 2008 9:04 am 

    Recently I rolled up next to a mid 50’s “too young to have been a hippie in the 60’s, but kept it going into the 80’s” guy on a mountain bike. He was so jazzed to see another rider that he just verbally assaulted me with “Bro,” and “Dude.” And then went into a tirade on the gulf war, his not owning a car for over twenty years, some garbled nonsense at hyper speed, something about “the MAN,” I think I heard the word ethanol in there, and then back to the bicycle. I caught maybe three sentences out of 100. All I said was “What’s up?”

  16. Iron Man May 30, 2008 9:05 am 

    Thanks for the mindless bot post Jeff. I’ll be sure to join.

  17. Alex Thompson May 30, 2008 2:54 pm 

    “Don’t draft without asking” ought to a rule. I’m half inclined to punch someone who does that. When you draft someone the puller has to adjust their riding style. They can’t slow down quickly and they have to trust that you’re being attentive. If not they can take you out by catching your wheel. I know of someone who was taken out by someone who was drafting without asking and she broke her arm badly. I don’t draft with people I don’t trust, and I don’t draft in certain settings – so ask first.

  18. RL Policar May 30, 2008 3:00 pm 

    You know what I do when someone is tail gating me when I’m driving my car…I turn on the windshield washers….gets them all wet.

    I’m sure if you take a swig of your water bottle and spit it out, the back spray will make the drafter stop….

  19. cafn8 May 30, 2008 3:24 pm 

    You could also show them your water bottle nasal flush trick. That would get them off your wheel!

  20. RL Policar May 30, 2008 3:38 pm 

    Ooh yes!

    Farting would do the trick too…

  21. Dan May 30, 2008 3:53 pm 

    I love the last rule, as I always try to look around and notice interesting things.

  22. Moe May 30, 2008 3:54 pm 

    I like to nod or say hello, I’m not really a chatter box. (I’m usually out of breath). I think that it is common courtesy.

    On drafting, uh… never done it while commuting, there hasn’t been anyone to draft with!

  23. climbinskier May 30, 2008 8:57 pm 

    I don’t expect verbal hellos or even conversation but acknowledgment back isn’t asking too much. Even if you are in your rhythm it doesn’t take much to give a small wave or a nod when someone waves or says hello. It’s a simple courtesy that says “yeah, another person on a bike, right on”.

    As for drafting, my favorite was the time the guy in full lycra on a nice bike was drafting behind me as I was huffing, not very fast, up a hill on my single-speed fixer bike. He wouldn’t pass me until we at the top. There was plenty of room to pass too. Ah the good times.

  24. Matt F May 31, 2008 4:52 am 

    Another convention I’ve developed: don’t mention your commuting to anyone at work if commuting by bicycle is unspeakably unconventional. Keep it a secret unless asked, and realize you are doing it because you want to and it happens to be healthy, make you feel great, have more energy (although maybe sleep more to make up for the exercise). Most of my coworkers definitely don’t have the option to commute due to living 10 to 30 miles from work. To each his own.

  25. Matt June 1, 2008 9:40 am 

    Good luck with these rules in NYC. If I said hi to everyone I saw I would never be able to breathe.

  26. marsha July 1, 2008 9:51 am 

    shhh it’s like fight club.. rule number one…


  27. Doug July 1, 2008 10:46 am 

    I’m fortunate enough to have a paved hike & bike trial for the majority of my five mile commute. Much of the trail is bounded by a of concrete embankment going down about 20 feet to the bayou and an earth embankment going up about 10 feet to the street level. The trail can be a bit narrow such that surprises coming up from behind have the potential of forcing you or the other rider off in to the earthen bank if you’re lucky or the concrete embankment if unlucky. Issuing a warning as you pass is critical. Yet still some joker in a Fruit Loops jersey yesterday blew right past me literally brushing my shoulder with his and didn’t say a word. Somehow I don’t think he realizes that saying “on your left” is as much for his safety as mine. God help him if I accidentally swerved left as he passed on my left. But then again, maybe a slide down the concrete bank would smooth out the chip on his shoulder before he landed in a bayou full of treated sewage (note the use of the word “treated”, it’s still populated with fish and birds).

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